I would never have guessed that Buhl, Idaho had the largest rainbow trout farm anywhere in the world. But, then again, I’d never heard of a place named Buhl. The area appears as flat farm land with immense rock walls on one side of the Snake River, but lies pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Clear Springs Foods in Buhl raises between 24-26 millions pounds of trout annually; that’s 70-75 percent of all Idaho trout production. And, Idaho produces more trout than any other state. At any given time about 10 million fish thrive in their fresh water facilities. Now that’s a lot of fish.
A natural phenomenon occurs at the edge of the walls of Snake River Canyon, creating an ideal situation for trout farming. Heavy winter snows in the Tetons area melt in the spring, thus filling an immense underground lava rock aquafer the size of Lake Erie. The water works its way southwest via gravity and emerges at Buhl in a gushing roar of pure, oxygenated water at a constant temperature of 58 degrees. Since those are the exact environmental conditions trout prefer, this location makes the most perfect spot on earth to raise Rainbow Trout.
No surprise then that trout operations in the area date back to 1928; however, Clear Springs was founded in 1966. The company now manages the entire production process, from selective breeding to growing, harvesting, cleaning, deboning, packaging and distributing nationwide. Somehow it seemed almost magical to me.
I toured parts of the plant, seeing labs used for testing, the breeding area and indoor and outdoor tanks where the fish grow. Although trout typically spawn in the fall, by careful selection and specialized lighting to adjust the length of day, Clear Springs is able to stagger the normal spawning cycle to provide a continuous supply of eggs year-round.
The eggs are placed in incubators where they are bathed in spring water for about 10 days until they hatch. The young fish (called fry, as in small fry) are then transferred to indoor ponds to continue growth. When they reach three inches in length, they’re moved to outdoor ponds. Here they are nurtured for up to an additional year, until they reach a typical market weight of 16 to 28 ounces.
All ponds are constantly inventoried and monitored for health. The fish are fed a consistent diet of high quality nutrition, including vitamins, minerals and protein.
At the optimal time, live trout are trucked to the nearby processing plant and placed in holding ponds. The fish then travel through computerized weighing and sorting lines and into chill tanks for about 30 minutes. They are then packaged as “Dressed Fish,” meaning they still have their head, tail and fins — or are sent to other stations for further processing, such as filleting and breading. Trout burgers, anyone?
Finally the trout are shipped fresh or frozen in refrigerated trucks across the US. Some customers receive air shipments.
The 500,000 gallons of water per minute flowing through the farms and processing plants are closely monitored under very strict codes. The plants manage their waste by manufacturing liquid fertilizer and are non-consumptive water users.
From now on, when I see Rainbow Trout on a menu, I will think of Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, Idaho.
Disclosure: Debi visited Clear Springs while on an IFWTWA Media Tour sponsored by Idaho Tourism.